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On tertiary education, funding, and how this government is letting its universities and polytechnics down badly

November 25th, 2022

So I had a very disappointing experience at my local Countdown the other day. I got to the checkout to pay for my carefully-selected, budget-conscious, healthy groceries, and the cashier wouldn’t accept my payment.

Problem was that the contribution my employer has offered me to deal with this cost of living crisis is its gratitude. And it turns out that your employer’s gratitude doesn’t pay the actual bills.

But that’s all my tertiary-education colleagues have left to pay for life’s little luxuries with – you know, things like food, and the rent, and petrol, and the electricity bill.

And that’s all we have left because our pay has not quite kept up, while the prices of all these things climb and climb, like a beanstalk with all the gold at the top, where it stays with the giants who own the banks, supermarkets, rental properties, oil companies and power companies.

When the cost of living has gone up by about 8% in the last year, but your employer offers you a 3% pay rise, that’s effectively a pay cut. And our tertiary employers know this. That why they make sure their pay goes up decently.

We have heard recently about the context for these numbers, and how universities’ vice-chancellors have received some quite eye-watering salary boosts.

They did dropinto the mid-six-figure range in 2021, many of them, acknowledging that pay restraint was appropriate at that time.

Those salaries are mostly back to where they used to be, and then some; apparently pay restraint for vice chancellors is no longer appropriate, but an absolute necessity for their staff.

And the picture is no less ugly elsewhere in the tertiary sector.

AUT have recently announced plans to slash 170 full-time academic jobs, while their vice chancellor, Damon Salesa, trousers even more than Massey’s Jan Thomas, who famously saw her salary shoot up 18% this year.

At my employer, Te Pūkenga, the new national super-polytechnic, my boss, Peter Winder, has recently told me and my colleagues that he needs to find $35m in savings – quite possibly including cuts to programmes that aren’t generating enough revenue.

Winder makes around $600,000 a year. If he’s looking for cuts, I can think of a really good way to save half a million right there.

Now, we’re told that VCs and CEs have to get paid salaries best expressed as fractions of a million, while their staff in turn get paid fractions of that, because that’s the only way to attract the very best.

But if the best you can come up with is cutting programmes, or firing about 8% of your lecturers, then, seriously, what the hell are you doing raking in over half a million dollars a year? For that kind of money, you really need to have some more creative solutions.

Of course, the problem isn’t really that polytechnics and universities need to cut staff, or programmes, or even VC salaries (although on fundamental principles they absolutely should be cut, and substantially; there is absolutely no justification for paying Dawn Freshwater of Auckland University over three quarters of a million dollars a year).

The problem is not that too much money is going out; the problem is that nowhere near enough money is going in.

At least, it’s not going in where it’s most needed – at the front lines, keeping courses and programmes open, ensuring that the salaries of academics and support staff, the footsoldiers who do the real heavy lifting at the various unis and polys across the motu, keep up with the cost of living.

Instead, we’re seeing yet another layer of administration being slotted in to Te Pūkenga, this time at the regional level, with quarter-million-dollar salaries for the successful applicants.

Te Hautū Kahurangi, the Tertiary Education Union, supports the substantial change that Te Pūkenga was meant to bring – a collaborative, rather than a competitive, approach to vocational education.

But the “improved” funding system the Reform of Vocational Education (Rove) promised us back in 2019, in the Before Times, appears to be slipping back to the “managerialism” that has been creeping into the universities of Aotearoa for some time now and Rove was meant to move away from.

Despite the education minister saying that “an investment in tertiary education pays back to the government more than it costs many, many times over”; and despite a Labour government with an unprecedented majority and the once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something truly revolutionary, to implement meaningful change; tertiary education is woefully underfunded.

Investment in tertiary education is not just spending, a necessary evil that needs to be covered as cheaply as possible. It’s an investment in the future of the country.

It’s absolutely needed to pay to train the nurses who have kept this country going through the long, long years of the pandemic. It’s vital if we want to keep training more plumbers, and electricians, and builders, to construct the houses that we urgently need.

Our employers know this, our employers whose salaries have stayed quite buoyant, while we lecturers and professors and tutors and academic, the ones who do the actual core business of our institutions, along with the professional staff without whom we would not be able to do our jobs, see our pay go backward.

Our employers, our generously-compensated VCs and chief executives, know that we are the ones who kept the doors open, kept the teaching going, through the Covid years, all the while trying to keep ourselves as sane as possible through the greatest existential crisis most of us have ever experienced.

They know this; we know they know because of all the lovely emails they have routinely sent out telling us how much they value our mahi, how much they understand how hard we’ve worked, how important we are.

But that gratitude and that appreciation won’t pay the bills. A fair pay settlement will.

This article first appeared in Stuff. 

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